Note: This page covers information specific to New Jersey. For general information concerning false light see the general False Light section of this guide.
New Jersey recognizes the tort of "false light." Plaintiffs can sue for "false light" when false information is spread about them that is false and offensive. The specific things a plaintiff must prove are listed below under "Elements of a False Light Claim."
False light in New Jersey is similar to defamation. Both protect against the same wrongs -- offensive false statements. The key difference between defamation and false light is that they protect against different harms flowing from such statements. Defamation protects a person's public reputation, while false light protects a person's internal mental tranquility. See Romaine v. Kallinger, 537 A.2d 284, 290 (N.J. 1988)
Elements of a False Light Claim
To establish false light a plaintiff must prove that the defendant (1) made statements about the plaintiff (2) to the public that are (3) offensive and (4) false. Each of these requirements is described in greater detail below.
Identification of Plaintiff
The statement in question must identify the plaintiff in particular. For example, falsely criticizing all doctors will not allow any particular doctor to sue you.
For a plaintiff to win, he or she must show that the statement in question was publicized. While New Jersey courts require the false statement to be disclosed to the public, they have not ruled on what exactly that means. It is safe to say that publishing on the Internet for the whole world to see is public disclosure.
The statement must be "highly offensive to a reasonable person." Romaine, 537 A.2d at 290 (quoting Restatement 2d of Torts § 652E). In other words, it is not enough that the plaintiff is offended; it must be reasonable to take offense.. For instance, in Salek v. Passaic Collegiate School, a high school yearbook featured a photo in its "Funny Pages" of a male and a female teacher, with a caption (falsely) implying that the teachers were in a romantic relationship. 605 A.2d 276 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1992). One of the teachers sued, but the court held she could not recover because the yearbook caption was not offensive to a reasonable person.
In order to prove a false light claim, the plaintiff must show that the information was false. The falsehood could misrepresent the plaintiff's characteristics, conduct, or beliefs. If the publication is true, then the plaintiff cannot win.
A plaintiff must also show that the defendant was at fault when he or she caused the false implication. If the defendant is a public figure, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." See Miele v. Rosenblum, 603 A.2d 43, 48 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1991). New Jersey courts have not decided what level of fault must be shown when the plaintiff is a private figure. They could either require the plaintiff to show that the defendant acted with actual malice, as for public figures, or could require the plaintiff to show that the defendant acted "negligently." For more information on possible levels of fault, see the Actual Malice and Negligence section of this guide.
Privileges and Defenses
If you are sued for false light, you may have several defenses that will protect you, even if the plaintiff has an otherwise winning case. See the section on Defamation Privileges and Defenses for a general discussion of potential defenses. For instance, opinions are constitutionally protected; a false light claim must be based on the implication of a false fact. Other defenses may be available, but New Jersey courts have not yet said what they are.